MERIDEN — Zayra Rivera had newly arrived in Connecticut from Puerto Rico 19 years ago, when she took on a new teaching assignment.
She joined the staff at Wilcox Technical High School teaching English to students for whom it is a second language.
Rivera, who had been teaching English since the 1980s, and her husband left their home in search of economic opportunities.
It was a difficult adjustment. “it was hard for me — because I was uprooting from my island and my people,” Rivera said.
Understanding that adjustment enables Rivera to relate to the students she teaches on a daily basis. That fact is not lost on Wilcox Principal Stacy Butkus.
“You know what these kids are going through. You know how hard it is to not only move, but to move to a whole different culture,” Butkus said to Rivera, during a recent interview with the two of them.
Administrators for Wilcox and other high schools that are part of the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System are looking to increase enrollment of high needs students — in particular those students who are considered English language learners.
That group of students represents a growing population statewide. But their numbers are relatively small at CT Tech high schools like Wilcox. Meanwhile, officials and community leaders acknowledge that group of students — and local industries — stand to benefit from having workers who are not only skilled in a trade, but have the ability to communicate fluently in more than one language.
Before that potential can be realized, schools like Wilcox must recruit more students.
Identifying English language learners
According to enrollment counts as of Oct. 1, 2020, 22 — or just under 3% — of Wilcox’s 782 students identified as English language learners. Meanwhile at Meriden’s district high schools, Platt and Maloney, that group represented roughly 13% of the student bodies in each of those buildings.
October enrollment figures showed 155 of Maloney’s 1,208 students are identified as English language learners. Meanwhile, 138 of Platt’s 1,008 students are similarly identified. With all grades included, English learners make up a little more than 16% of the entire student body in the Meriden Public Schools.
Long term enrollment data shows Meriden’s overall student population has declined by a few hundred students in the past decade. Meanwhile the number of students who enter school as non-English speakers has risen. A decade earlier, in October 2010, 952 of the district’s then 8,406 students were considered English language learners. Ten years later, that population was counted at 1,313.
Local trends are similar to statewide trends. English learners now make up more than 8% of the entire student population, from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 statewide. A decade earlier, that group accounted for less than 5.5% of the overall population. Within that time, the number of students considered English learners increased by more than 10,000 students, while overall enrollment had declined.
Local districts use additional assessments, aside from statewide student achievement tests, to monitor students’ progress toward learning English. After students demonstrate proficiency on those tests they exit English learner status.
Written guidance from the U.S. Department of Education spells out that students must still be monitored for at least two years to ensure they’ve “not been prematurely exited.” Federal guidance also urges continued monitoring to ensure students are participating in learning similar to peers who are primary English speakers.
Addressing the enrollment gap
Jeffrey Wihbey, superintendent of the statewide Connecticut Technical Education and Career System of which Wilcox is a part, acknowledged the enrollment gap, which state enrollment data show has persisted for well over a decade.
Wihbey said CT Tech officials have upended and reworked the system’s enrollment process as part of a larger effort to make it more equitable in all categories. That reworking was invoked in large part due to the pandemic.
“The new process has us dealing directly with families in an online format,” Wihbey said, adding CT Tech schools had previously recruited students through their middle schools’ guidance offices.
That direct outreach has already yielded results: increased applications and admissions offers.
“We quadrupled the ELL applicant pool this year — and quadrupled our offers,” Wihbey said.
For example, for the current ninth grade class, Wilcox received seven applications from the families of students considered English language learners. All seven received admissions offers.
For the upcoming school year Wilcox received applications from the families of 37 English learners, all of whom have been offered admission, according to data shared by CT Tech officials.
“We offered to all of them. So we’re moving in the right direction,” Wihbey said. CT Tech administrators are pleased by that directional shift, but not satisfied yet.
Butkus, Wilcox’s principal, emphasized the importance of removing barriers to enrollment for ELL.
“It’s not because we’re not accepting them. We don’t have as many applying,” she said. “And some of that is a language barrier. They don’t understand our system and the application process. But we’re looking to improve in that area.”
CT Tech educators are also looking to improve outreach.
Rivera has been involved in those efforts at Wilcox. The school recently held an open house, which Rivera led, for Spanish-speaking families to learn more about the school’s programs and how to navigate its different platforms.
“We’re hoping that outreach and that extra step sends the message to the community that we’re very interested and we’re welcoming and we’re going to do whatever we can to support them,” Butkus said. “We want to break down those walls and really welcome them and do whatever we can.”
A population not reflected in enrollment numbers is students who have exited English learner status before enrolling at Wilcox.
Rivera said there is still a group of students, not officially considered English learners, for whom she provides tutoring and other language support.
ELL students who enroll at CT Tech schools like Wilcox experience academic success — as borne out by the rates of students who graduate from high school within four years.
Graduation data show English learners who have enrolled in Connecticut Technical Education and Career System’s 17 high schools statewide graduate at rates similar to their peers — slightly better, in fact. For example, in the 2018-2019 school year, more than 98 percent of English learners who entered the schools four years earlier graduated on time. Their graduation rate was one percentage point higher than the system’s overall graduation rate.
“They’re graduating at a higher rate. We want to get more of those kids into our school. They are successful when they get to us,” Wihbey said.
CT Tech officials are also looking to recruit more students with special education needs. A little more than 12% of Wilcox students are on a specialized learning plan. A decade earlier that population comprised 7.4% of Wilcox’s overall population.
"Ultimately, we want our district to look like what Connecticut looks like. I want our staff, students to look like what Connecticut looks like."
Wihbey said 17% of students who were offered admission next fall are on specialized learning plans. If all those students were to enroll, Wilcox’s special education student population would more closely mirror the populations at Maloney and Platt.
“Ultimately, we want our district to look like what Connecticut looks like. I want our staff, students to look like what Connecticut looks like,” Wihbey said.
For the current school year, 469 Wilcox students in grades nine through 12 are from Meriden. Another 121 students are from Wallingford; while 80 students hail from Southington and 41 students from Cheshire. Wilcox students come from 19 communities overall.
For the current school year, 397 students applied. Of that group, 307 received an admissions offer and 84 students were placed on the school’s wait list.
In order to be accepted into Wilcox, students must demonstrate success in eight grade, submit a letter stating their interest in attending, along with a recommendation letter, and a record of their attendance record.
CT Tech spokeswoman Kerry Markey, in an email to the Record-Journal, described the new admissions policy and process as parent driven and centralized systemwide.
“[T]he application is now fully online — an improvement which we believe has proven valuable not only during the pandemic, but also for families who can now access the application in any language and for our schools that can now reach families directly,” Markey wrote.
“We surmise that because the application was made available online families may have had an easier time applying, and again, we can reach families directly through the online platform as opposed to working through sending districts for recruitment,” she added.
Wihbey explained CT Tech staff had been working on that revamped admissions process even before the pandemic. It was piloted at other CT Tech schools in Hartford, New Britain and Manchester.
“We’re going to hone it, make it better and work on it,” Wihbey said.
For the upcoming school year, Wilcox should be able to serve the incoming student population with its existing personnel. As the population increases, the school will need to add staff. In some cases, CT Tech may be able to meet students’ needs by transferring staff from one school to another. As enrollment of students in need of specialized programming increases the system will need to address them budgetarily, Wihbey explained. It happened when CT Tech increased its population of special education students.
“With expansive growth, we had to hire special education teachers across the state. We fully anticipate we will have to do the same thing with ELL teachers and so forth,” Wihbey said.
CT Tech officials hope to meet the future needs of employers across the state, including those with bilingual business needs. Qualified students will receive an official state “Seal of Biliteracy” on their high school diplomas, indicating they are proficient in more than one language, Markey explained.
Adriana Rodriguez, executive director of the Spanish Community of Wallingford, is familiar with the importance of providing students with an education that enables them to be skilled and bilingual.
Rodriguez’s own family moved from Mexico to Wallingford when she was in elementary school. She grew up bilingual, but didn’t realize the value of knowing a second language until she was in fourth or fifth grade.
“I was probably one out of four in my whole grade who spoke another language. When new students from Mexico arrived to Wallingford who did not know any English — my teachers sat them next to me,” Rodriguez said. She realized then how she could use her bilingual skills to help her peers. She would later use her skills as an interpreter volunteering with the police department and the library.
At Wilcox, Rivera regularly encourages her own students not shy to away from their bilingual or bi-cultural heritage.
“One thing I tell them is I speak with an accent,” Rivera said. “It is a sign that you speak more than one language. You have a lot of information in that brain. Show it. Be proud of it,” she said.